Endocrine mechanisms, behavioral phenotypes and plasticity: known relationships and open questions

Front Zool. 2015 Aug 24;12 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S7. doi: 10.1186/1742-9994-12-S1-S7. eCollection 2015.


Behavior of wild vertebrate individuals can vary in response to environmental or social factors. Such within-individual behavioral variation is often mediated by hormonal mechanisms. Hormones also serve as a basis for among-individual variations in behavior including animal personalities and the degree of responsiveness to environmental and social stimuli. How do relationships between hormones and behavioral traits evolve to produce such behavioral diversity within and among individuals? Answering questions about evolutionary processes generating among-individual variation requires characterizing how specific hormones are related to variation in specific behavioral traits, whether observed hormonal variation is related to individual fitness and, whether hormonal traits are consistent (repeatable) aspects of an individual's phenotype. With respect to within-individual variation, we need to improve our insight into the nature of the quantitative relationships between hormones and the traits they regulate, which in turn will determine how they may mediate behavioral plasticity of individuals. To address these questions, we review the actions of two steroid hormones, corticosterone and testosterone, in mediating changes in vertebrate behavior, focusing primarily on birds. In the first part, we concentrate on among-individual variation and present examples for how variation in corticosterone concentrations can relate to behaviors such as exploration of novel environments and parental care. We then review studies on correlations between corticosterone variation and fitness, and on the repeatability over time of corticosterone concentrations. At the end of this section, we suggest that further progress in our understanding of evolutionary patterns in the hormonal regulation of behavior may require, as one major tool, reaction norm approaches to characterize hormonal phenotypes as well as their responses to environments. In the second part, we discuss types of quantitative relationships between hormones and behavioral traits within individuals, using testosterone as an example. We review conceptual models for testosterone-behavior relationships and discuss the relevance of these models for within-individual plasticity in behavior. Next, we discuss approaches for testing the nature of quantitative relationships between testosterone and behavior, concluding that again reaction norm approaches might be a fruitful way forward. We propose that an integration of new tools, especially of reaction norm approaches into the field of behavioral endocrinology will allow us to make significant progress in our understanding of the mechanisms, the functional implications and the evolution of hormone-behavior relationships that mediate variation both within and among individuals. This knowledge will be crucial in light of already ongoing habitat alterations due to global change, as it will allow us to evaluate the mechanisms as well as the capacity of wild populations to adjust hormonally-mediated behaviors to altered environmental conditions.

Keywords: behavior; corticosterone; environmental gradient; hormone; quantitative relationship; reaction norm; testosterone.

Publication types

  • Review